Anti-colonialism, Kant, and modern academia

Posted on January 21, 2017 by

Disclaimer: I should state, first and foremost, that though I am a student in the philosophy department at the University of Calgary, my opinions in no way represent or reflect those of my peers and supervisors.

Lately, a great deal of ink has been spilled on a recent move by the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies Student Union. The Telegraph article linked above is meant to explain the general context in the British (and, generally, Anglophone) University system, though it doesn’t quite explain what the Student Union suggested.

As I have done before, I’ll offer a rough analysis of the actual dialectic here:

The Student Union at SOAS suggests that, within their school (that is, the School of Oriental and African Studies) the focus ought to be on philosophers from Asia and Africa, rather than from Europe. Further, when various European philosophers are taught, they ought to be taught critically, because of the cultural role of European society in colonialism and the prospect of colonial bias in their writing.

Various critics of this regard it as an attempt to censor certain classic voices in the curriculum based on a distaste for some of the positions held by those voices. Amongst the voices who come up prominently in discussion, in particular, are Plato and Kant. (I will focus, as most of the commentators have, on those two examples.) Further, critics suggest, it is wrong to oppose these philosophers merely because they are “white.” I put “white” in scare-quotes here, because white is not synonymous with European… and thinking of Plato as white is either false or anachronistic.

Some Dumb Things Being Said

It always seems like the appropriate way to start commentaries on this is to get away from the various spurious claims that are being made. I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself with the end of the last paragraph… but I wanted to list a few that show up in the article.

Sir Roger Scruton, famous philosopher of aesthetics, commented, “If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.” Various other commentators have suggested that the SOAS student union has no basis for critique because Kant is not mired in a colonial context; this is patent nonsense. Oxford University Press (long one of Scruton’s publishers) put out an anthology on the subject in 2015. Of course, this is hardly new; Sankar Muthu has a famous book that chronicles, at great lengths, various points at which Kant and “Enlightenment era” European philosophers criticized or endorsed various elements of colonialism.

It is painfully ironic that Scruton and other conservative commentators suggest that canonical works aren’t being read carefully or critically, when it is scholars like Muthu and Ypi who pay enormous attention to both mainstream and marginal historical works.

The dumber comment is that students in SOAS are attempting to shield themselves from the works of these philosophers. Those familiar with colonial studies might be aware why this is nonsense, but for the uninitiated, some clarification is in order.

An enormous portion of the workload in “Oriental and African Studies” involves reading material far more overtly offensive and disturbing than anything present in Kant or Plato. Setting aside deep discussions of colonial practices, including graphic depictions of subjugation and dehumanization, it is very rare to find works on curricula that do not include extensive citations of colonial era literature. Note that they want to subject Kant and Plato to critical interpretation; that is because that’s the standard set for interaction with work emerging from colonial contexts.

A More General Note

I generally endorse reading Kant and Plato, because I think the history of philosophy is important regardless of the region and style of philosophy one intends to practice. I think so-called “analytic” philosophers should read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; I think so-called “continental” philosophers should read Quine and Ayer. Frankly, it strikes me as pretty dumb that including more Asian and African philosophers in contemporary curricula is at all controversial. (One of my own accidents of fortune involved meeting the African novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who recommended some modern African philosophers to me…)

There are general disputes about contemporary academic practices, and whether things like safe spaces and no-platforming constitute censorship. I have written on these previously.

Critical evaluation of the entirely artificial philosophical canon is not even in the same realm as censorship; quite the opposite. Critical evaluation of both the necessity and content of historical works in philosophy is part of the practice of philosophy. In point of fact, a society that practices free speech is one that engages in rejection of one of the canonical figures critics of SOAS exalt: Plato.

In Book III of the Republic, Plato suggests that we must not allow even Homer to portray Gods or demigods as flawed; rather, we should stifle their speech. “Then we shall not suffer such an expression to be used…”